Category: Feminist Music Geeks Take to the Streets

Creating Space

Earlier this week, I launched my personal Web site through UW-Madison’s Comm Arts Department. I built the site as an assignment for my Digital Production class. I intended to use the assignment as a means to update my blog and integrate it into a larger, ongoing project of media-making that I believe is foundational to my scholarly interests in gender, labor, and music culture as a feminist media scholar.

I’ll start by saying a bit about the initial process of building a blog. At first, it was infuriating. It was especially frustrating because my ambition exceeded my reach. I drew out a detailed, multi-page layout. I have a very clear vision for how I want my site to look and what I want it to do. Ultimately, I want my Web site to have curated collections for previous and ongoing research. I also want it to have the capacity to stream my mixes and deejay setlists. But I needed to know how to create a style sheet first.

As a class, we used Dreamweaver to build our sites. This is software in which I once claimed proficiency based on watching friends use it to build their Web sites, but I never really played with it before. My experience as a blogger and freelancer allowed me to treat the Internet like a Word document, because someone else built the frame onto which my words, images, clips, and links appeared. We also read Jon Duckett’s HTML and CSS: Design and Build Websites as a reference guide. Because of the accelerated nature of most graduate courses at R1 institutions, this involved reading 50 to 100 pages of the book at a time and (hopefully) absorbing the material as you went. Like many people essentially acquiring foreign language skills, I’m learning through error. I learned how to do something by spending hours figuring out what I did wrong, combing the book and other online resources, texting friends for advice, and toggling between HTML and CSS and doing minor tweaking that would either change nothing on the page or radically change the layout and design elements, depending on my commands.

When you’re also balancing the expectations of coursework, a TA assignment, and other administrative duties, it’s easy to freak out. I freaked out at least once. After a particularly unproductive day in the lab that culminated in me putting a picture on top of the header, I felt myself reverting to that day in freshmen geometry when everyone seemed to get proofs but me. I wanted to cry. Unfortunately, I share an office with five other teaching assistants and had an hour before facilitating four consecutive discussion sections. So I took several deep breaths, let a friend hug me, tabled it, and taught undergraduates about the political underpinnings of television’s transnational practices of importation, formatting, and co-production. Then I had dinner with a friend. Then I talked to a couple of people in my class who were having trouble or experiencing anxiety about the project. Then I went back to my layout design and attempted to break up the assignment into small, discrete chunks. First I’d create the “About” page. This involved building a header in Photoshop. I took a picture of myself reaching for a copy of The Gossip’s Arkansas Heat (originally used as the header for this blog), cropped and resized the image, added a layer of text with my name, positioned it in a place where it would be clearly visible, and saved it for the Web. Once I had the layout the way I wanted it, I could easily transfer it to the CV page, the Research page, and the Playlists page. Then, I poked around WordPress and found a layout that more or less matched my Web site’s layout and design (960 grid! Helvetica!). I originally conceived of redesigning the blog to match the site layout, but this was an easier solution. As I worked, I developed a better understanding of HTML, CSS, and Photoshop. I started to love working on my site. I started to realize that, like my blog, this space would undergo an unending process of construction. I built myself a home. Two days after I turned in the assignment, I built the site’s splash page.

This assignment made me remember why I’m taking this Digital Production class, which I forgot during the constant negotiation of coursework expectations, lesson plans, grading, and deadlines for future projects. I’m invested in university production programs doing right by their female undergraduates. I want more women to be media literate and I want more women to be media-makers. I don’t presume an additive approach will “fix” the television and film industries. More women working in television and film won’t inherently make those industries commit to more progressive hiring and retention practices. It won’t end sexism, racism, colorism, homophobia, transphobia, sizeism, ableism, and ageism. But education is never a loss. Educating women should always be a priority. And educating men and women to work together in an equitable manner will enact positive social change. As someone who teaches a studies course about post-network era television to undergraduates who want to work in the television or film industry, I want them to acquire the vocabulary and critical thinking skills in order to interrogate the processes by which television is created, distributed, and consumed. As a feminist media scholar who studies women’s below-the-line intermediary labor in the music, television, and film industries, I’m invested in helping close the gender gap. I’m invested in eventually teaching production classes so I can help create a space where students acquire skills that allow them to rethink what’s possible and to destabilize potential assumptions of who gets to enact that work. And as an instructor, I’m committed to the ongoing process of learning through teaching students how to think and work together.

Just as I’ve made peace with the fact that I can’t control how my words are interpreted by others, I’ve embraced that this Web site is a public work in progress. I designed it on a Mac. It currently looks weird in Internet Explorer, though it appears to be compatible with Chrome, Safari, and Firefox. It looks okay on my phone. I still have a lot of work to do. I need to add anchors to my CV in HTML. I need to include a contact page. I need to add credits for Girls Rock Camp Rhode Island and Scratched Vinyl editor Chi Chi Thalken for their images that I used in the Home and About pages. While I wanted it to be clean and uncluttered, it might be a bit too minimalist. I might be oppressing you with Helvetica. Finally, how do I maintain a Web site without giving in to the governing logics of branding that I believe to be antithetical to the larger political project of cultural studies?

For my final project, I’m working on further developing the Research and Playlist pages. Currently, my Research page consists of three images that link to my PowerPoint presentations of a Girls Rock Camp workshop, a guest lecture, and a conference presentation. Pretty lo-fi. Taking a cue from Miriam Posner, what I’d ultimately like to do is curate an interactive collection for each workshop, lecture, and presentation that incorporates text, images, AV material, and secondary research. I won’t be able to do this for every conference presentation and guest lecture I’ve done by the end of the semester. So I’ll start by curating a collection on the Girls Rock Camp curriculum I designed with my friend Kristen. I’ll bring in the images and videos we collected for our workshop and integrate songs from the supplemental mix CD we made for our workshop into this collection.

I want all of my deejay setlists to be available through SoundCloud, so I will make one playlist streamable. I want to stream my setlists through my site for a few reasons. One, I want listeners to have access to my research. I use the word “research” purposefully, because I discovered that Cathy Dennis’ “Touch Me” references Wish & Fonda Rae’s “Touch Me (All Night Long)” through doing the same kind of digging that I have done through scholarly and trade publications to write a term paper. I think of my Queens deejay sets as aural histories of women’s contributions to soul, hip-hop, and R&B. But as a feminist, I’m conscious of who my deejay nights exclude. There are geographical barriers. My sets certainly aren’t available to people who live outside of Madison. My sets may also be inaccessible to people who live with physical disabilities or social anxieties. Going to the Alchemy requires transportation. It also requires feeling comfortable in loud public spaces. It may also presume that you’re a social drinker, which prohibits potential listeners who are sober or in recovery. It may also be unfeasible to attend if you can’t frequent local establishments due to a limited budget or particular familial responsibilities. Finally, I’m especially aware of how holding a deejay night on a Friday or Saturday evening might prohibit people who don’t feel safe going out alone or in small groups late at night. Let me be clear: I want people to see me spin in person. But I also want to give listeners options, because being complicit with exclusivity means perpetuating inequality.

In addition to building a database, converting vinyl to a digital format, and creating streamable mixes, I want my Playlist page to enact another function. Around Halloween, I had a conversation with a friend about how to celebrate while using it as a platform for creating awareness and challenging social practice. My friend was especially upset about a local ad that showed a woman being dragged inside a haunted house. It was hard for her to separate the image from a recent news story about a woman who was murdered in her own home. It was hard for either of us not to think of how we lost Esme and how her murder continues to influence how we carry ourselves at night. Thinking about this in relation to my upcoming deejay gig, I thought about how it might be nice to link a seemingly fun event to larger social issues. So I’m planning on picking one song from a setlist and relating it to one regional non-profit that is seeking to end violence against women and children. For example, how might we put Millie Jackson‘s “It’s All Over But the Shouting” in conversation with the Settlement Home for Children in Austin?

These are big ideas that I’m trying to take on a little bit at a time in the ongoing development of my site. I welcome any and all ideas people may have regarding both design and content. Let the great (ongoing) experiment begin.

In Collaboration: Chelsea Hernandez and KB the Boo Bonic

Recently, Texas-based filmmaker Chelsea Hernandez got in touch with me about a Kickstarter campaign she launched with Kara Bowers, better known as rapper KB the Boo Bonic, for the “2 Playa” music video, which they were trying to finance. They previously worked together on a short film entitled feMC (which also features Miss Manners, host of KOOP Radio’s “Hip Hop Hooray” and a personal friend). Hernandez summarized the treatment in an email:

The music video we are fundraising for encompasses a message of young feminism. KB skates around town and comes across a flyer for a child’s beauty pageant. Disgusted, she skates to the pageant to bomb the show. Sneaking in the backstage, [KB] looks on at young girls with hopeless faces as their show moms fancy them up with gobs of makeup, layers of hairspray and prissy, glittery dresses. KB throws down the makeup and knocks over the dresses, grabbing the girls and running out to the stage. On a rebellious rampage, KB and the new kickass pageant beauties begin a food fight, throwing cupcakes on stage.

Sounds awesome, right?!?!? Fortunately, they’ve already reached their goal. But independent artists always need fan support, however small. This blog has a soft spot for underground female hip hop artists, independent female directors, and female creative collaborations. And if they’re making art with a feminist or feminist-friendly message, isn’t that what so much of us live for? I know it keeps me pumped. So big ups to KB and Hernandez and keep an eye on their new video.

Riding the Wheels of Steel with the Queens: 8/18, the Alchemy

Last Saturday, I finally delivered the DJ set I knew I had in me. I was disappointed by the show I gave on the eve of my 29th birthday–a set beleaguered with technical difficulties, disjointed transitions, and frayed nerves. By my assessment, the seams showed big time. But last weekend at the Alchemy, I was in the zone. I attribute my success to:

1. Setting up my first four songs ahead of time. Some day soon, I’ll incorporate a laptop into my setup. Later, when I have disposable income again, I’ll invest in more up-to-date equipment. But for now, my current setup consists of two turntables and a two-disc mixer I inherited from a friend. This setup leaves me vulnerable to skipping. A way to avoid this problem is to give yourself enough time to cue every track. This can be hard to do in a live setting where the venue, its sound system, and its patrons are variables. DJs have to keep the party going. This can be difficult when someone comes up to the booth to start a conversation about your equipment, Lil Wayne, or his/her burgeoning hip-hop career. Factor in a few missed cues and skipping problems and it’s that much harder to recover. The key to a successful evening is to always be ahead of the mix instead of running behind it or flailing underneath it. This requires a cool head and quick instincts. So making sure my first four songs were on point before I started gave me ample time to prepare the rest of the set, as well as field requests and chat with folks throughout the night.

2. Working with a mix. Some DJs who use laptops work exclusively from a pre-constituted mix. Ugh, why book a DJ if s/he’s just going to push play on an iTunes mix? That said, it’s nice to have an anchor. So I burned three mix CDs and kept one of them in the mixer at all times. When I played all the songs I wanted off one mix, I switched it out with another. Now, I integrated these mixes with other records and played off the crowd, the venue, and whatever I wanted to hear at any given moment. I also shuffled the order I played the songs on each mix CD. But I always had a batch of songs at the ready and this kept me from running around and constantly switching out material.

3. Practicing with the equipment. I’m just starting out as a DJ, so I’m still getting used to working with two turntables and a mixer at once. But I’m more confident each time I do it. This goes for playing music as well as setting up my gear. My partner and I share our equipment. He’s deejayed quite a bit more than me. I had him coach me in our kitchen, but I break out the equipment and practice alone. He still helps me cart the equipment–not because it’s too heavy or intimidating, but because he’s a supportive partner. And I ask him to stand in the audience while I check my levels. But I’m really conscious about gender stereotyping around technology, so I learned what every plugin connects to and why and am learning how to cue, cut, mix, and fade between each song on my own.

4. Believing in myself. I had a good time on Saturday. I loved what I was playing. I had conviction, which I hadn’t really found during my first two sets. The audience responded by cheering, dancing, and making out (!) to my set. They got into what I was playing, in large part because I was enjoying myself so much. You get what you give. Part of this had to do with demonstrating greater fluency with the material. I’m working with the genres of soul, R&B, and hip hop in part as a challenge. I’m invested in breaking down rockist traditions of taste hierarchies and white privilege, especially those circulating (unintentionally or not) within punk, post-punk, and riot grrrl, which are genres I know a bit better. I do research as an instructor and scholar, largely so that I can learn or unlearn about things beyond my intellectual comfort zone. I listen and learn to destabilize. Why not turn that skill set toward deejaying?

Also, this is the music I need to hear and share right now.

In the future, I’d like to post my set lists here. I’m taking a class on digital production this fall, and have set this as a goal for myself. I will probably use SoundCloud or 8Tracks, but am open to suggestions. For now, fans can access last Saturday’s set list through Feminist Music Geek’s Facebook page. I’ll leave you now with a few songs that I especially loved playing. Don’t hesitate to put in your requests.

On wearing headphones

One of my favorite reality TV characters is Jay McCarroll, who won the first season of Project Runway. He seemed like the kind of person you’d want to meet for brunch or a late-night movie after a shitty day at the office. A friend, in other words. He was also the kind of person who declined $100,000 and a mentorship with Banana Republic so he wouldn’t be tethered to another person’s vision and a company’s bottom line. Mainly, I loved how he used headphones as an accessory to tie his collection together.

What do headphones mean? There’s a class status associated with them. One of my professors observed that when he commuted to Fordham, he saw more white ear buds the closer he got to work and a greater variety of clunky, outdated sets the further public transportation took him away from campus. I plug a pair of Sony MDR-V150s into my smart phone when I go for a run, take the bus, or work from home. I don’t get any sound from the right side. Tech-conscious consumers might gather that I’m a late adopter and a frugal consumer regardless of my grad student income. They may also think I don’t care about sound quality, which is sometimes true. Often I’ll take the comfort of music over sonic fidelity. I do share a Bose set with my partner for deejaying, as optimal sound quality is necessary.

What do headphones say about how we interact with the world and one another? It wouldn’t be off-base to say that I use them so I don’t have to listen to you. When I’m on the bus, I don’t want to hear or get roped into errant conversations. When I’m out for a run, I am very conscious about having my femininity objectified. I also think running is boring without music. When I’m coming off the bus to teach or attend class, I pick songs to center myself and boost my confidence.

There’s an embedded privilege to using technology to opt out of daily social interactions. What does it mean if I don’t want to talk to strangers on the bus? What would it mean if I didn’t have a set of headphones to remove me from my immediate surroundings? What does it mean that I would never wear headphones while walking alone at night?

One time last spring, I forgot to pack my headphones and a chatty older woman asked me a bunch of questions about what I was reading. It was Derrida’s essay on différance, so I couldn’t answer her conclusively. But for some reason I got really angry that she was talking to me. Some of this had to do with the 7 a.m. commute. A lot of it had to do with feeling like she was invading my space. So I curtly said that I didn’t know. Then I felt terrible, because she was just trying to make conversation. But she found someone else to talk to, so I continued mouthing Derrida’s words silently to myself. Another time I was heading home from a long day at school. Two women were talking about a mutual friend applying to grad school. They were dead against her decision, because what gainfully employed individual would go into the humanities in this economy? I took this question personally because it’s what I ask myself every day (grad school is an act of faith). So I scowled at them, changed seats, and listened to Can’s “Moonshake” because it was roughly the length of the ride before my stop and, as Jonathan Sterne points out with the help of several scholars in The Audible Past, “[r]elations of space become relations of time.”

What you may gather from these anecdotes is that I’m not great with people and I use music to distance myself from them. In part, that’s true. But first of all, who’s good with people on the bus? This is a loaded question. I’ve shared the bus with people with mental problems or drink to excess to dull some kind of pain. Many people take the bus because they can’t afford not to if they don’t have a car. They may travel great distances to work, school, and home (if they have one). Someone is driving that bus. This blurs the boundaries between passengers’ personal space and drivers’ work space. That’s why I always thank them for dropping me off, except for that one racist driver who yelled at a group of teenagers seated in the back for playing some hip hop at moderate volume.

But as a cultural studies scholar, why would I cut myself off from forced interactions between strangers on public transit? Sometimes I don’t. When a little girl sits next to you, names the women on the cover of the book you’re reading, and introduces you to her alter ego, you leave the headphones in your bag. Sometimes I use the bus to work through shit. I’ve cried on the bus twice this year, thus bringing strangers into my reality. Like Robin Scherbatsky, I wasn’t ashamed. I was overwhelmed and allowed myself some release. As a feminist, I believe crying in public defies societal expectations that women are supposed to suppress their feelings. But who gets to cry on the bus? And even if I pat myself on the back for being subversive, I leave my sunglasses on and dial down the volume. I see these people on a regular basis.

In a larger sense, headphones keep me connected to the world just as they appear to remove me from it. I study music culture, which means I’m constantly listening to music. What am I listening for? Often people take on research in familiar areas and see and hear things they expect to find. In my field, fandom often informs our research. But even as I accumulate knowledge, I put on headphones to hear sounds I’m not familiar with. A curiosity with the unknown is what drove me to host a college radio show, to start a blog, and to book a deejay gig at a local restaurant.

This means living with anxiety. I’m not sure why I booked a set at Alchemy. I needed grocery money. My partner spins regularly at Natt Spil, which engendered a sense of competition just as much as it comforted me to know that you can play records in front of people and not die from it. But I have this drive to do things and put myself in situations that I don’t quite understand. As much as I can tell, it’s about entering into a cultural tradition with people like Tara Rodgers and the women she interviewed for Pink Noises who wanted to prove they were fluent enough with technology and their own record collections to pull it off.

Proving myself wasn’t the only part of my decision, though. As I get older, more confident, and kinder to myself, I identify feminism with self-actualization and possibility more so than with marginalization. For me, it’s about holding on to that feeling while channeling my anger at oppressions within and outside of feminism toward productive, transformative work and living a life I respect. So I think about music in terms of sharing. I do this in part because I’m finishing Lawrence Lessig’s Remix and just finished Nancy Baym’s Personal Connections in the Digital Age and they talk quite a bit about sharing economies. I also do this in part because so often music, as with many taste cultures, encourages insiderism and amassing cultural capital that, if you’re a real dick, you withhold to lord over people.

I recently made a mix CD for a seminar discussion I facilitated on Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Place and Time because I didn’t assume all of my classmates spent their twenties listening to the Butchies and Le Tigre. Having been isolated from film scholarship on movies I haven’t seen (and worse, scholarship that used pyschoanalysis to explain those films), I thought band names don’t mean anything if you read over them without an aural reference point. I had knowledge that I wanted to share. I renewed that knowledge as I made the mix, adding songs by contemporary queer artists whose work enriches or challenges Halberstam’s interpretation of queer subcultural practice.

I did something similar in prepping my deejay gig. I reread Jessica Hopper’s Rookie post on deejaying. I pulled every album I thought I’d need, combed through my favorite music podcasts (see blogroll) for suggestions, and downloaded a bunch of songs. I was putting together a mix of soul, R&B, and hip hop tracks from female artists, which was informative. You could build an entire set around obscure funk and post-disco tracks that were repurposed as recognizable samples. You could do an entirely different set devoted to songs originally recorded by black women that were later popularized by white women.

One thing became clear to me as I was putting my set together: I was hearing a lot of black women’s voices. I wasn’t sure what it meant, though s.e. smith’s “Writing the Other” floated through my mind. I wanted to honor these women, their voices, their subjectivities, and use my three-and-a-half hour set to develop a discursive musical history you could dance, drink, chat, and hook up to.

By my high standards, I’d give myself a B-. I need to work on transitions. Raymond Williams’ concept of flow is foundational to my discipline. Though he was talking about how television programs bleed into advertising and one another, I thought about the intellectual labor involved in being able to make connections between songs based on shared compositional and thematic elements and turning that into a coherent listening experience for other people. It involves anticipating the audience’s needs and using equipment as a barrier from them.

I kept thinking about the limitations of genre. I only think genres are useful when blown up, as Kathryn Bigelow did with her “wet western” Point Break and as Joe Cornish did with his allegorical urban sci-fi action comedy Attack the Block. Music is no exception. As a music listener, what I enjoy most about Girls Rock Camp is hearing songs that don’t quite work–a vocalist channeling Adele opposite a bassist trying not to channel Kim Gordon, a punky chorus about RSVPing to a party, a haunting vocal solo in an otherwise cheerful song about summer vacation, two keyboardists and one guitarist in the same band. So as much as I love playing Betty Davis, I kept wondering what “Bar Hoppin’” would sound like paired with the Meat Purveyors’ “Thinking About Drinking” instead of El Riot’s “Do It Right.” I want to hear all women at once. I also want to better field requests, which means letting go of the music so I can play reggae for one patron and Azealia Banks’ “212″ for a group of friends and get personal satisfaction out of it too.

For me, headphones create a conduit between unfamiliar texts and interpersonal relations. I was wearing headphones when Frank Ocean came out. I used my headphones to take in Planningtorock’s amazing “Patriarchy Over and Out,” which a college friend recommended to me via gchat (incidentally, his artwork considers how people engage with Internet culture). I used my headphones when crafting this post. I’ll use my headphones when I’m on the bus, though I’ll always use the set that doesn’t register sound in one ear in case someone wants to strike up an interesting conversation. I use my headphones to at once retreat from the world and understand my place within it.

All hail the queens

Everyone, this is important. I’m deejaying for the first time in a place that is not my kitchen or college radio station. I’m spinning at Alchemy Cafe on Friday, July 6. I’m putting together a set of music from women in soul, R&B, and hip hop. You should be there to dance with me. You can expect to hear something like this.